The paradoxes of Christopher Hitchens

December 16, 2011

By Nicholas Wapshott
The views expressed are his own.

By now, Christopher Hitchens, who has died from esophageal cancer after weeks of radiation treatment at the Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, will know whether there is or is not a God. If there is an after-life, we can expect Hitch to arrive in combative mood. His strident atheism, like many of the views that contributed to his reputation as America’s most gifted polemicist, was in its way a peculiar act of faith.

Hitch was paradoxical to the end. In his final piece for Vanity Fair, the magazine that brought out the best of his artful argumentative style matched to his almost flippant name-dropping erudition, he confessed, between searing pain and narcotic oblivion, to wanting “to be fully conscious and awake, in order to ‘do’ death in the active and not the passive sense.” It left some wondering whether he was sharpening his wits to meet God on the other side.

But then Christopher liked to have everything both ways. A bisexual, he enjoyed putting his liberal men friends to the test by kissing them smack on the lips in front of their wives. He lived half his life as a proud and passionate man of the Left before, in middle age, flipping to what he had until then reviled as the dark side of the political spectrum. He was above all, perhaps, an attention seeker, a born contrarian who desperately wanted to become a professional controversialist. In that, he spectacularly succeeded.

But his route to stardom was often at the expense of those who befriended him or had done him enormous favors. It was with great sadness, but little surprise, that friends of Anthony Howard, the distinguished editor of The New Statesman who gave Hitch his first and most important breaks as a writer, read Christopher’s sour demolition of his old and generous mentor, whom he ridiculed for, of all things, his mundane prose style. The intention, it seems, was no more than to take a prominent leftist scalp while showing he owed his success to no one.

A similar treachery was inflicted upon his pal Sidney Blumenthal, the journalist and Clinton presidential aide who had inspired so many of Hitch’s scoops. Christopher became close to the Blumenthals, attended the bar mitzvah of their son, and, when he belatedly discovered he was himself Jewish, claimed his true name was Blumenthal and that they were now cousins. Anxious to show his independence while trying to deliver a mortal blow to a president facing impeachment, Hitch felt he had been misled by Blumenthal and betrayed his source, leaving Blumenthal facing a jail sentence and landing him with a hefty legal bill. A bid by Blumenthal at a death-bed reconciliation with Hitch was rebuffed.

Perhaps it was his troubled parents – his father was a chilly, taciturn sailor he called “The Commander”; his mother enacted a suicide pact with her young lover after eloping to Greece — who provoked Hitch to lead a life alternating between shock and awe. He became enamored with George Orwell and never lost his undergraduate appetite for big themes, refighting the obscure internecine battles of the Russian Revolutionaries and passionately exploring such fathomless topics as the meaning of life and death.

As a Trotskyist expelled from Britain’s Labour Party for fiercely opposing Lyndon Johnson’s war against the Vietcong, Christopher moved to Washington D.C. to report from the belly of the Great Satan where he discovered the joy of working on a large canvass. His insatiable appetite for notoriety drove him to assail previously irreproachable targets, among them the saintly Mother Theresa and America’s most celebrated public servant, Henry Kissinger. The Islamist fatwah against his friend Salman Rushdie sparked Hitch’s abrupt somersault to the Right and embrace of the Iraq War, a cause many of his former leftist friends deemed even less worthy than Vietnam.

In his final interview — with his fellow atheist Richard Dawkins — that must serve as his epitaph, Hitch discussed his abiding hatred of totalitarianism, “the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes. And the origins of that are theocratic, obviously. The beginning of that is the idea that there is a supreme leader, or infallible pope, or a chief rabbi, or whatever, who can ventriloquize the divine and tell us what to do.” If Hitch finds there is indeed a God, it is an issue he will surely raise at St Peter’s gates.

Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics is published by W. W. Norton.

PHOTO: Christopher Hitchens, journalist and author of his new memoir “Hitch 22,” poses for a portrait outside his hotel in New York, June 7, 2010. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton


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Dear Nicholas Wapshott: next time you give an interview, I’m going to blog about your time spent with a “fellow Christian.” Would you write about someone’s “fellow Jew” or “fellow Muslim”?

Posted by Nullcorp | Report as abusive

Terrible obit – we lost a great man and intellect in the passing of Hitchens and you treat him as some run of the mill magazine writer or huckster with a penchant for betrayal. The blurb on his ‘switch to the right’ over the Iraq War – what nonsense! While he supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein (the official position of America since 1998) he was further pressed to support armed conflict as it became apparent that al Qaeda was hoping to use Iraq as its new ‘Afghanistan’. Just about every aspect of the prosecution of the war he was strongly against, including forcefully speaking out against torture.

Honestly, this whole piece feels more like a cut-and-paste from Wikipedia than from someone who knew a thing about the life (and times) of Christopher Eric Hitchens. RIP Hitch

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive

Alot of yall need to stop, this revisionism that people are doing is everything Hitchens hated and disagreed with. A great intellectual YES, One of the greatest, yah right. Now that he is dead people will overlook his great flaws, his mistakes, his elitism. I am sorry he was sick these last couple of years cause the Left is praising him so much right now but i would love to have heard his take on Obama and especially the OWS movement.

RIP hitchens , even though i disagreed with you a lot, you were a taught provoking, extremely flawed man and i bet that’s the true way you want to be remembered

Posted by Anubis99 | Report as abusive

Mother Teresa and not Mother Theresa
spelling error :)

Posted by juggernaut | Report as abusive

Hitchens is probably in Hell, arguing with Satan that he can’t possibly exist.

Posted by TheDagger | Report as abusive

With a guy like Hitchens, youre bound to have some paradoxes…at least he had the guts and brains to question the pop culture pseudo intellectual idols and “saints”

Posted by D.D.T.KOOL-AID | Report as abusive

According to the christian faith H does not know now. People do not go to heaven or hell just after they die.

They are placed in a limbo awaiting the final day when they have to parade in front of St Peter giving each one thumb up (heaven) or thumb down (hell).

Hence “Grandma is with God looking down on you” is a popular wrong interpretation of the bible.

Posted by timingbeltkill | Report as abusive


Posted by Biscayne | Report as abusive

I liked Hitchens a lot. He championed those with few champions…the dominant activity of Jesus of Nazareth. He championed freedom of the soul and the spirit. He was a fine follower and advocate of “the way.”

I wish peace to those who were close to him.

Posted by johnvos | Report as abusive

“(he) will know whether there is or is not a God.” – if he is dead, then he knows nothing either way. You are using G W Bush “with us or against us” logic.

Posted by nicfulton | Report as abusive

Let’s apply the old argument..what came first …the chicken or the egg. What came first God or man? It’s a jacka$$ question and the answer probably isn’t going to be what those that have totally bought off in to organized religion want to hear. These people (the religionists) are easy to identify by the way, There’s a large hook protruding from one side of their face (metaphorically speaking). The concept of God was invented by man. PERIOD! What a pathetic article. Sounds like Wapshott was in reality envious of Hitchins. He just doesn’t have the cajones to man up to it.

Posted by xyz2055 | Report as abusive

Whatever else may be said (rightly or wrongly) about Hitchens, it seems that his most abiding hatred was reserved for totalitarianism. And, particularly, the kind he describes so eloquently in the closing quote of this article. This was undoubtedly a manifestation of Orwell’s profound impact on his worldview. And it can’t be argued that, at least when it came to that animosity, he remained fairly consistent.

For example, nobody who’s so viscerally opposed to totalitarianism can possibly endorse any of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) all of which are erected on the belief in autocratic rule by an all-knowing, all-powerful “supreme” being.

The Abrahamic religions betray their Middle Eastern origins in this belief in a sort of Saddam Maximus up in the sky. For millennia, this region has been (and continues to be) the cradle of despotism and one-man rule. It is not at all surprising that Middle Eastern rulers in time immemorial decided to cement their grip on political power by ascribing to their successive deities the self-same absolutist character that they sought to reserve for themselves on Earth.

Posted by jrpardinas | Report as abusive

A truly pathetic obituary, concentrating on silly personal aspects (and rather distorted at that!); I wonder what obituary this petty man would have written about Churchill, commenting purely on his personal flaws. Hitchens was a great thinker who wanted mankind to use logic to further its progress rather than invented religious maxims that lead to totalitarian regimes.

The author of this article is indeed a hollow man with little to offer but venom.

Posted by luiscatan | Report as abusive

[…] The paradoxes of Christopher Hitchens […]

Posted by Machimon | Report as abusive

Amateurishly written obit. Writer sounds as if he had some personal enmity towards Hitchens and is using his death as an opportunity to lash out at him.

Hitchens may have been flawed, but the flaws this idiotic writer chose to highlight are irrelevant, out of place, and distorting to the more complex (and interesting) life that was Christopher Hitchens.

This writer should be fired if he writes like all of his pieces like this.

Posted by dwg | Report as abusive

Just like Hitchens himself, it appears there are a lot of bitter, pissed-at-the-world people supporting him on this comment board. And just like Hitchens, they’re looking for something to be angry about.

Posted by TheDagger | Report as abusive

Thanks very much for giving us the real facts on Hitchens…obviously a very unhappy man…thrashing around…a bit sad…

Posted by JerusalemGuy | Report as abusive

Obviously Mr Hitchens is laughing his head off watching all you people get angry. I don’t consider this an obituary. He is just telling us what he felt about the man.
And last I heard there is no longer a limbo.

Posted by glowbug | Report as abusive

[…] so because it offered an excuse for actions that would be inexcusable if committed while sober. His peccadilloes, or worse, were as celebrated as his passions. Just one example: driven by his almost-obsessive […]

Posted by Queering the Hitch: Why Christopher was not my kind | a paper bird | Report as abusive

How strange, you sound like a bunch of angry religious people upset that Christ Hitchens is worshiped by everyone else – Oh wait, you are.

Posted by SoiderHawk | Report as abusive

I don’t think I would ever have read Dostoevsky, Epicurus, Wodehouse or Nabokov if it were not for Hitchen’s work and reference to them. If nothing else he inspired others to widen their literary horizons and to think critically. He certainly made my world a more interesting place.

Posted by TC_UK | Report as abusive